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What is a Malt Shop?

By Josie Myers
Updated May 16, 2024
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A malt shop, sometimes called a soda shop, is a ice cream and fast food style restaurant that was popular in the 1940-50s. The malt shop still exists today, although in a tribute fashion. Shops offer food like burgers, sandwiches and fries while the wait staff usually dresses in uniforms similar to those seen during the malt shop heyday. Vintage movie and music posters adorn the walls, while a jukebox usually plays in the background, or at least sits in the front of the room as decoration.

The decor of a malt shop is "retro" with many bright colors and modern lines with very little ornamentation. Since this midpoint of the 20th century was the first era of mass production, the style was simple to accommodate easy production. Neon signs and clocks gave a modern feel to the shops.

The term malt comes from the malted milk that made the shops famous. Brothers James and William Horlick invented malted milk in the 1880s. The concoction is a mixture of malted barley, wheat flour, and whole milk that is dried to a powder form. It was originally invented for use with infants and invalids to be an easy source of nutrition, something akin to powdered baby formula or milk. The taste found popularity in soda shops, and even greater popularity when mixed with ice cream.

The first malt shop appeared in the early 1900s. At the time, a shop was primarily countertop service offered out of a drugstore, serving drinks only. In order to keep customers coming back, owners soon added fare like sandwiches and burgers. By the 1930s and 1940s, the advent of the jukebox made a malt shop a draw for teens who could get a bite to eat, a snack and hang out with friends while listening to the latest rock and roll.

By the late 1950s, the culture of cars had begun to take over the soda shop. Teens were more interested in showing off their new cars than in sitting around a shop listening to music. Drive-in movie theatres and restaurants became the place to be by the 1960s. Ice cream shops with drive-up service became a quick replacement for those needing a bite to eat. The ability to eat while sitting in the car listening to music fulfilled all the activities that they were interested in at that time. The malt shop in its true form faded out of existence.

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Discussion Comments
By SauteePan — On Jul 23, 2010

Bhutan- The only thing that we have here where I live is Johnny Rockets. Johnny Rockets has the old-fashioned jukebox and plays songs that were predominately popular in the fifties.

By Bhutan — On Jul 23, 2010

I want to add that there are two fabulous malt shops in South Florida. One is called Swenson’s which is in Miami and the other is Jaxsons in Dania Beach.

Swenson’s makes homemade ice cream that is great. The food is just as good as the ice cream. My favorite entree is the grilled cheese sandwich, but the burgers are delicious too.

Jaxsons was featured on the Food Network and it is an institution in Dania Beach. The food is served in enormous portions that taste incredible.

The desserts are endless and taste so creamy and rich that it is just amazing. I highly recommend these places. Both have been around for about sixty years.

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